To Kill a Journalist
In the last minute of his life, Armando Rodriguez braced himself against the morning chill. He and his 8-year-old daughter Ximena were huddled in the front seat of his company car, coaxing the first gasps of warm air from the heater.
Armando was the star reporter for El Diario, the leading newspaper in the world’s most dangerous city. But his frenzied work day always began with a quiet drive to drop his daughter off at her elementary school.
On that cold November morning, Rodriguez hardly noticed the man approaching on foot. Seconds later, gunfire shattered the driver’s window and the windshield. The killer hurried to a getaway car and sped away.
Armando’s wife Blanca heard the shots from inside the house as she dressed her 2 year old for daycare. “Another shooting,” she said to herself, “more violence.”
Too frightened to open the front door, she peeked out a window. The body of her husband sat upright in his car seat. “He was in the car with his head down,” Blanca recalled. “Like he was calling El Diario to report the shooting.” Ximena sat in shock beside him. Blanca ran outside and pulled her sobbing daughter from the car.
It was a professional hit. Video of the crime scene shows three bullets holes through the windshield, as close together as the knuckles on a hand, three more through the driver’s window. Ten shots in all, his colleagues later determined. The shooter fired close and aimed straight. Rodriguez’s life was over in seconds. El Choco, as Rodriguez was widely known, was 40 years old.
Back inside the house, the couple’s 2 and 6 year old waited in uncomprehending silence. Blanca called for an ambulance. “For a while nothing else seemed to happen,” she recalled. Some of Choco’s friends from El Diario were the first to arrive. Eventually a patrol car pulled up. But the dispatcher never sent an ambulance.
Ten 9mm bullet casings littered the murder scene, one for each year Choco covered the police beat for El Diario. The murder of the city’s leading crime reporter made the front page.
Choco was the first journalist to fall victim to the turf war between the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels that engulfed the state of Chihuahua from 2007 to 2011. He was not the last. In July, the special prosecutor for crimes against journalists in Mexico testified that 67 journalists had been killed in that country since 2006. An additional 14 others have disappeared without a trace.
Only one person has been sentenced for any of these crimes.
Choco’s murder in November 2008, his colleagues say, was intended as a death threat to the entire media establishment in Juarez. But perhaps even more chilling is the way Mexican authorities, including the former president, have handled Choco’s case, butchering the investigation and then ignoring it altogether despite an international campaign to secure justice for Choco. Four years later, the Mexican authorities have yet to charge anyone in Choco’s murder. The evidence, his friends and colleagues say, points not just to bungling but an official cover-up that has done lasting damage to freedom of speech in Mexico.
Virtually every international advocate for press freedom in the world has campaigned for the Mexican government to conduct a proper investigation of his murder. His case has been investigated and publicized by the likes of PEN International, The Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, Reporters Without Borders, and the Committee to Protect Journalists, to name just a few. The author Charles Bowden dedicated Murder City, his bestselling account of the bloodshed in Juarez, “For Armando Rodriguez.”
Choco’s face adorns a banner on the side of El Diario’s headquarters demanding “Justice for El Choco.” Every year on the anniversary of Choco’s death, El Diario publishes an update on the case. Reporters from the paper also grouped together in response to his murder to form The Journalists’ Network of Ciudad Juarez. Part of its mission is to resist the climate of fear created by Choco’s murder.
Jorge Luis Aguirre is the exceptional journalist who will speak on the record about the government’s complicity with organized crime in Juarez. Not coincidentally, he resides in El Paso, the first Mexican journalist to be granted political asylum in the U.S. Aguirre was one of several of Choco’s colleagues on the police beat to receive a death threat soon after the murder. On the way to Choco’s wake, he answered a call on his cell phone. “You’re next,” the caller warned. Aguirre and his family fled to El Paso that same night.
In testimony before the U.S. Senate, Aguirre described Ciudad Juarez as a place where “violence has erased all authority and government from the map and replaced it with a dictatorship of the crime underworld.”
Aguirre says that the U.S. granted him asylum because he made a convincing case that the attorney general of Chihuahua, Patricia Gonzalez, intended to have him killed. In the two weeks prior to Choco’s murder, he published two articles linking the attorney general of the state of Chihuahua to organized crime.
“El Choco was killed by the state,” Aguirre said. “Why isn’t it investigated? Because they don’t want it investigated. The state knows who did it, but it’s not in their interest to say who because it would expose their part in the system.”
As though to corroborate Aguirre’s point, two federal investigators assigned to Choco’s murder were themselves assassinated within a month of one another the following year. The third closed his office and fled the city.
Within two years of Choco’s assassination, two more journalists in Ciudad Juarez were murdered. Ernesto Montañez Valdivia, editor of the magazine Enfoque, was shot to death in 2009 while riding in a pickup driven by his son. Then Luis Carlos Santiago, a 21-year-old photographer for El Diario, was strafed with bullets while driving through a shopping mall parking lot in 2010.
More than four years have elapsed and still no one has been charged in either murder.
An unsolved murder is hardly news in a country where charges are filed in less than two out of every 100 homicides. But how many of the 11,000 murder victims in Juarez since 2007 maintained a public profile as high as that of Armando Rodriguez?
They called him Choco after Choco Roles, a Mexican snack cake similar to a Hostess ho ho with chocolate on the outside and a creamy middle. It was a term of endearment, one meant to humanize a difficult man.
In the newsroom at El Diario, you didn’t need to see Choco to know he was there. The blare of music usually preceded him. “He used to flood the newsroom with music every afternoon, despite his neighbors’ dirty looks,” wrote his friend and colleague Martin Eduardo Orquiz in a remembrance the newspaper published a day after the assassination.
Choco was volatile and he was direct. Rocio Gallegos remembers the day he walked into her office unannounced and closed the door behind him. It was her second day on the job as his editor. “There’s something I need you to know,” he told her, “I have a problem with authority.”
For a rebel, Choco took unusual pride in his proximity to power. In 10 years on the job, he built a network of contacts in the police department and judiciary, and stayed in touch with many of those who crossed over to work for narcotraffickers. “Armando had much better contacts than anyone with the police, including with ex-police that were hardened criminals,” said Pedro Torres, executive editor of El Diario. “He knew people on the inside and outside.”
Even among reporters at El Diario, Choco was a man in the know. “He knew who was who, how they operated, what they were involved in,” said Lucy Sosa, a former police reporter for El Diario.
At police headquarters, Choco ruled the roost. Colleagues recall how easily he could make small talk with anyone in a police uniform. One minute, he’d make a desk clerk crack up laughing, the next he’d be following a police commander to his office for an interview. “He was the leader of the reporters pool,” recalled Salvador Castro, Choco’s college friend who went on to cover the police beat for El Norte. “Many of us followed his lead, and we wrote what he wrote.”
Edgar Roman, a former crime reporter in Juarez, said the first thing anyone noticed about Choco was his formidable intelligence. He said he could also be a bully, ridiculing newer reporters, calling them fools and asserting his dominance. But an apologetic Choco always called him later to share his information. That Choco was like a different person. “He told me once, it’s better no one knows we’re friends.”
As a reporter for El Diario, he was prolific, filing 907 stories in his final eight months on the job, an average of four per day. Even so, he fell far behind the pace of the violence he was trying to record. In the year he was killed, his was only one of 1,607 murders in Juarez.
The international focus on Choco’s case hasn’t brought his killers any closer to justice, but it has served to illuminate the culture of impunity in Mexico. The greater the pressure brought to bear on the highest authorities in government, the more glaring their efforts at obfuscation.
In September 2010, then-President Felipe Calderon surprised a visiting delegation from the New York City-based Committee to Protect Journalists by announcing that the murder of Armando Rodriguez had been solved. A pair of hit men were in police custody, he said, and both had confessed to taking part in the assassination. Both were members of La Linea, a gang of current and former police officers who served the Juarez Cartel as professional killers.
The Mexican attorney general’s office made it official in a September 23rd press release posted online.
Rocio Gallegos, an editor at El Diario, printed out a copy of the press release that morning. Good thing, too, because an hour later, the original statement had disappeared from the prosecutor’s website. In the newer version that took its place, several key details were missing. The suspects were no longer identified by name, for one thing, and the mention of La Linea was struck. Finally, the number of men said to have confessed in prison dropped from two to one.
The moment had come when the cynicism of a cover-up exceeded the horror of the crime.
With a hard copy of the original statement, Gallegos and her staff of reporters sought to identify the men whose jailhouse confessions had led to Calderon’s starling announcement. The newspaper had already received a helpful tip by phone weeks earlier. The caller claimed to have a brother in prison who was being tortured to confess to Choco’s murder.
The tip led reporters at El Diario to a torture complaint that one of the alleged killers had filed with the National Commission on Human Rights on the day after his confession. In the complaint, the man known as El Arnold accuses the army of secreting him out of prison to a military garrison, where soldiers beat him in an attempt to force a confession. When he refused, the complaint stated, the soldiers sodomized him with the point of a sword.
The second man to allegedly confess to taking part in Choco’s murder had been found hanged to death in his prison cell three months before the attorney general’s office named him as a suspect. This may explain why his name was struck from the second press release. Prison authorities initially ruled his death a suicide. But when El Diario requested a copy of the autopsy report, prison authorities reversed themselves and called it murder.
On the strength of the two wobbly confessions, the state attorney general’s office identified the shooter in Choco’s murder as Julio, though the authorities said they weren’t sure of his last name. On the street he was known as El Junior and, in a twist reminiscent of Dr. Richard Kimball from The Fugitive, he was missing his left ear. The hit on Choco, the authorities continued, was ordered by a man referred to only as El Diego who, the press release claimed, was executed in 2009.
El Diario, citing a warrant issued for El Diego’s arrest in 2010, suggested that the alleged mastermind was still alive.
A day after El Diario published its report detailing the inconsistencies in the government’s investigation, Chihuahua’s attorney general Patricia Rodriguez confirmed in a press conference that El Diego was indeed alive and said that a manhunt for him was underway. “This individual is being referred to as the leader of the group that, at least according to the information that we have, ordered or authorized the death of Armando Rodriguez,” she said.
Less than a month later, armed gunmen kidnapped Patricia Rodriguez’s brother from his law office in Juarez. A video of his interrogation surfaced a few days later on Youtube.
He is surrounded by five men pointing automatic weapons at him. A voice off-camera asks him who killed the journalist Armando Rodriguez, and the condemned man accuses his sister, the attorney general, of having ordered the assassination.
The gaping holes in the government’s case didn’t deter President Felipe Calderon from repeating, two months after El Diario’s investigation and one month after the video surfaced, the discredited claim that “some of the killers are in custody.”
“In the case of El Choco,” the president went on to say, “there are men in custody, apprehended by federal authorities, it’s true, and at least one of them a perpetrator, and [there] is another who we know is dead, according to the statement by the other, and one more whom we are looking for.”
Five days after Calderon addressed the murder investigation, one of his own investigators, Jorge Gonzalez Nicolas, told El Diario “There isn’t sufficient evidence to issue an arrest warrant and it would be risky for the [prosecutor’s office] to try. There still isn’t even a motive.”
For a year, the investigation faded once more back into obscurity and silence.
Then on August 1, 2011, El Diego came back from the dead once and for all. On that day, Mexican federal police captured him at a safe house in Chihuahua, the capital city. The man the highest authorities in Mexico had called the mastermind of Choco’s murder was by then also known as the second-in-command of La Linea.
What happened next was a bureaucratic sleight of hand.
Within two months of El Diego’s capture, the federal attorney general’s office took over Choco’s murder investigation from state authorities. Ostensibly they were vetting all of the charges against El Diego in preparation for the indictment. The last official public statement on Choco’s murder was an admonishment by the state governor that the sheer number of murder charges against El Diego might necessitate some “consolidation” by federal prosecutors.
Eight months later, the U.S. government extradited El Diego to El Paso, where on April 12 he pleaded guilty in federal court to participating in more than 1,500 murders. The murder of Armando Rodriguez was not one of them.
U.S. Attorney Robert Pitman praised the case of El Diego as “a virtual textbook example of cooperation among law enforcement agencies, both in the United States and in Mexico, to hold accountable those at the highest level of the drug trafficking trade.” Pitman singled out for special praise President Calderon’s federal office of the attorney general.
In November 2012, in anticipation of the fourth anniversary of Choco’s murder, El Diario obtained an up-to-date copy of the homicide file. The lack of any new leads was the most conspicuous element in the investigation. The reporter, Lucy Sosa, found a handwritten notation recommending that an investigator travel to the U.S. to interview El Diego in prison about Choco’s murder. El Diego had been in custody for 15 months by then: the first eight months in Mexico, the next seven in the U.S. The homicide investigator who made the recommendation didn’t specify a date for the interview to take place. No agent has been assigned to the task.
“It doesn’t matter to them,” Blanca Martinez, Choco’s widow, said softly one afternoon. “There is no ethic here that obliges the police to solve a crime. They are incapable of appreciating the value of a human life.”
El Diego is currently being held incommunicado at an undisclosed prison somewhere in the U.S. An official with the U.S. Attorney General’s office in El Paso declined to be interviewed about him for this article.
The only other update to be found in the homicide file is a new police sketch of El Junior. The one-eared man is the last remaining suspect in Choco’s murder.
A warrant for his arrest has yet to be issued.